Salt of the earth
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Charlie Finch, managing director of Burley Stabilization, reflects on the challenges and opportunities facing American tobacco farmers.
A native of Henderson, N.C., Charlie Finch is a graduate of Louisburg College and East Carolina University. He worked at the Flue-Cured Tobacco Stabilization Corp. from March 1979 until August 1998, most recently as chief administrative officer and manager of member relations. These positions allowed Finch to work with all segments of the tobacco industry, from farmers and auction warehouse operators to leaf merchants and manufacturers.
Together with these stakeholders, Finch worked on issues that impacted the entire tobacco family—from legislation originating in the U.S. Congress, the state and local governments to issues that affected the tobacco farmers’ economic future. Finch also associated with tobacco farmers on a global basis through Stabilization’s association with The International Tobacco Growers’ Association.
In August 1998, he became managing director of the Burley Stabilization Corp. (BSC) in Knoxville, Tenn., a position in which he helps farmers obtain production stability and compete successfully in the global market.
TFQ caught up with Finch and asked him for his views on the future of U.S. tobacco.
TFQ: With all of the changes in the tobacco industry, does your organization face a challenging future? And, more specifically, what is the outlook for BSC?
Finch: Not only does our organization face a challenging future, the entire U.S. tobacco industry faces a challenging future, in my opinion. However, I am optimistic that we can face the challenges, learn from our mistakes and be stronger in the future. Tobacco has been grown in this country since 1612 and will continue to be grown for many years to come.
TFQ: What are the greatest challenges facing your organization and American tobacco farmers in general?
Finch: The greatest challenge we as an organization face is to help active farmers remain on the farm during this transition period. Tobacco farmers are the backbone and foundation of our tobacco industry. They are struggling with lower prices for their tobacco—as much as 50 percent lower—while production, fuel and labor costs have increased substantially.
TFQ: How will you deal with this challenge?
Finch: First on the agenda is to work with other agricultural organizations to try to obtain a fair and equitable guest worker program. The availability of qualified workers is a major concern. The cost of H2A labor is quickly becoming prohibitive and local labor is nonexistent. This is a problem that has to be addressed immediately.
To help reduce production cost, farmers must achieve higher yields. New and improved tobacco varieties are being developed, along with new harvesting, stripping and baling methods. Production efficiencies and cost-cutting measures without sacrificing quality are a must for any chance of profit.
TFQ: What are your plans for the future? Will BSC provide new services to farmers?
Finch: BSC will continue to proactively serve our farmers on national and state issues that affect their economic viability. There are those in this country who, for a variety of reasons, seek to tear down and destroy the very fabric that made this nation great and powerful—the family farmer.
In addition, BSC’s board is actively pursing a plan to produce and market value-added products. This will give BSC the opportunity to move forward under the free-market system to create a program that will benefit burley tobacco farmers. By developing and marketing value-added tobacco products, it will afford the cooperative the opportunity to utilize U.S.-grown tobaccos. Any profits BSC derives from this venture will be shared with the farmers.
TFQ: How do you feel about the U.S. quota buyout?
Finch: It had to happen. Tobacco farmers could not continue to face continued quota cuts, high lease rates and shrinking global demand. If nothing had happened, the program would eventually have disintegrated from within without any fair compensation to quota owners and farmers.
TFQ: At what level do you think burley production will eventually settle in this country? Do you see U.S. farmers growing more or less in 10 years?
Finch: At this point it is hard to tell. However, I can see production leveling out around the 500-million-pound level and increasing over the next 10 years. There is a shortage of quality burley tobacco throughout the world, and the U.S. will continue to be a stable supplier.
TFQ: Do you think burley growers will continue to increase exports?
Finch: Yes. We are seeing renewed interest from foreign customers that have not purchased U.S. tobacco in a number of years. Consumers of tobacco products in many parts of the world are looking for better products with quality tobacco.
TFQ: What do you enjoy most about working in the tobacco industry?
Finch: Working with farmers. As I said before, they are the backbone and foundation of our industry. They take all the risk for little reward, are always optimistic for a better crop and have the strong desire to maintain the family farm. You laugh with them, you cry with them—you become a part of their family.